On a day this week, the 14th August, 1956, after more than 40 years as playwright, theatre director and social critic, the communist writer and poet Bertolt Brecht died of heart failure in the flat he shared with Helene Weigel
On a day this week, the 14th August, 1956, after more than 40 years as playwright, theatre director and social critic, the communist writer and poet Bertolt Brecht died of heart failure in the flat he shared with Helene Weigel on Chausseestrasse (125), in East Berlin.
Shortly before he died, and aware for a long time that his health was failing, Brecht wrote the poem:
WHEN IN MY WHITE ROOM AT THE CHARITÉ
When in my white room at the Charité
I woke towards morning
And heard the blackbird, I understood
Better. Already for some time
I had lost all fear of death. For nothing
Can be wrong with me if I myself
Am nothing. Now
I managed to enjoy
The song of every blackbird after me too.
Brecht perhaps embodied more of the contradictions of the 20th century communist movement than possibly any other figure of the period – deeply committed to the downfall of the existing capitalist order yet shaped and pursued by events that made that vision a more complex and distant possibility.
Recognised now predominantly by the ‘cultured’-western-middle-class as one of the most influential dramatists of the last century, his role as a voice for social change has either been forgotten, criticised either for its Marxist or communist worldview (weltanschauung), or ignored as irrelevant to the work of a major ‘artist’. But to Brecht his talent was “absolutely inseparable from [his] socialist ideas” as he stated in a letter written to the composer Paul Hindemith, in the mid-30’s.
It is this commitment and its resonance through a lifetime of work, exile and contradiction that makes Bertolt Brecht a central figure in our struggle to shape a “culture of liberation” in and for the 21st century.
Born on 10 February, 1898, in Augsburg, Bavaria, at a time when Germany was entering almost a century of political upheaval. By his early school days he had begun writing, both for his school and local paper as well as his first play at the age of 16, when the First World War broke out. The ‘Great War’, with its 17 million dead and 20 million wounded, resulted in his becoming increasingly disillusioned with the existing state of affairs and his eventual move towards Marxism. He studied medicine at Munich University and served as a medical orderly in a military hospital in 1918. “The poem Der tote Soldat (The Dead Soldier) attacked the war and those wanting to prolong it.” Brecht wrote, in his undelivered Statement to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, in 1947, many years later.
And when the war reached its final spring
With no hint of a pause for breath
The soldier did the logical thing
And died a hero’s death.
The war however was far from over,
And the Kaiser thought it a crime
That his soldier should be dead and gone
Before the proper time.
The soldier, of course, is then dug up, pronounced fit for duty and sent back to the front line…
On 11 November 1918, facing revolution at home, Germany surrendered to the allies. His career in the military as a medical orderly soon to end, Brecht finished his first successful play ‘Baal’, written in 1918 which would be produced in 1923.
Rosa Luxemburg: “The revolution has begun. What is called for now is not jubilation at what was has been accomplished, not triumph over the beaten foe, but the strictest self-criticism and iron concentration of energy in order to continue the work we have begun. For our accomplishments are small and the foe has not been beaten.”
Stephen Parker: “Brecht would use these events as the backcloth for his new play. On 12 January government troops smashed the uprising, then on 15 January, they captured, tortured and murdered Luxemburg and Liebknecht. These events signaled the disintegration of relations between the two principal forces of the German Left. Brecht would return again and again to the grim significance of Luxemburg’s murder in the chaotic events surrounding the foundation of the Weimar Republic.”
There are different accounts of the young Brecht’s participation in the German revolution(s) of 1918 to 1923. One of which, referring to the “interview with Mr. Brecht by soviet writer Sergei Tretyakov”, (who was to fall victim to Stalin’s purges in September 1937) which was published by the State Literary Art Publishing House in Moscow (in ‘International Literature No.5, 1937), was quoted by the Chief Investigator, Robert E. Stripling, at the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) Hearings in 1947:
“I was a member of the Augsburg Revolutionary Committee,” Brecht continued. “Nearby, in Munich, Levine raised the banner of Soviet power. Augsburg lived in the reflected glow of Munich. The hospital was the only military unit in the town. It elected me to the revolutionary committee. I still remember Georg Brem and the Polish Bolshevik Olshevsky. We did not boast a single Red guardsman. We didn’t have time to issue a single decree or nationalize a single bank or close a church. In two days General Epp’s troops came to town on their way to Munich. One of the members of the revolutionary committee hid at my house until he managed to escape.”
To which Comrade Brecht, advisedly, had little to say.
Oh why do we not say the important things, it would be so
easy, and we are damned because we do not. Easy words,
they were, pressing against our teeth ; they fell out as we
laughed, and now they choke us.
from Song About My Mother – From Thirteen Psalms
Despite his interest in the deteriorating political situation, Brecht preferred to remain ‘independent’ and devoted his time to progressing his own work. By 1922, he had already developed a reputation as writer and dramatist with the publication of his early plays. In 1922, he was awarded the prestigious Kleist Prize for his first three plays ‘Baal’, ‘Drums in the Night’, and ‘In the Jungle.’
After moving to Berlin in 1924, he met the communist Viennese actress, Helene Weigel (who he married In 1930; they remained married until his death.) In 1925, his publishers provided him with Elisabeth Hauptmann as an assistant for the completion of his collection of poems, Devotions for the Home (Hauspostille, eventually published in January 1927). It was through Hauptmann’s influence that Brecht began studying Marxism and socialism in earnest:
Bertolt Brecht: “When I read Marx’s Capital”, a note by Brecht reveals, “I understood my plays.” Marx was, it continues, “the only spectator for my plays I’d ever come across.”
As well as being inspired by the developments in the Soviet Union, Brecht’s political education centered on his participation in Marxist study groups and particularly his relationship to the Marxist ‘heretic’ Karl Korsch (Korsch was expelled from the Communist Party in 1926 and remained critical of Stalin from the position of the Left Opposition groups he associated with).
Parker, (in his 2014 biography, summarises the outcome of Brecht’s studies):
“Guided by the teachings of another non-conformist Marxist social scientist, Karl Korsch, Brecht would call dialectical materialism the Great Method, with which…he could analyse the violent dynamic of conflicting class interests in the history of human socio-economic development. Using the Great Method, Brecht would explore the contradictions which, like Marx, he believed would lead to the self-destruction of capitalism in an age of unprecedented violence and upheaval. With much less certainty, he would posit the emergence of a new age out of the ruins of the old, in which the interests of the working class would supplant those of the bourgeoisie.”
At this transitional stage in his journey Brecht revised his poem “Of Poor BB“:
I, Bertolt Brecht, came out of the black forests.
My mother moved me into the cities as I lay
Inside her body. And the coldness of the forests
Will be inside me till my dying day.
In the asphalt city I’m at home. From the very start
Provided with every last sacrament:
With newspapers. And tobacco. And brandy.
To the end mistrustful, lazy and content.
I’m polite and friendly to people. I put on
A hard hat because that’s what they do.
I say: they are animals with a quite peculiar smell
And I say: does it matter? I am too.
Before noon on my empty rocking chairs
I’ll sit a woman or two, and with an untroubled eye
Look at them steadily and say to them:
Here you have someone on whom you can’t rely.
Towards evening it’s men that I gather round me
And then we address one another as ‘gentlemen’.
They’re resting their feet on my table tops
And say: things will get better for us. And I don’t ask when.
In the grey light before morning the pine trees piss
And their vermin, the birds, raise their twitter and cheep.
At that hour in the city I drain my glass, then throw
The cigar butt away and worriedly go to sleep.
We have sat, an easy generation
In houses held to be indestructible
(Thus we built those tall boxes on the island of Manhattan
And those thin aerials that amuse the Atlantic swell).
Of those cities will remain what passed through them, the
The house makes glad the eater: he clears it out.
We know that we’re only tenants, provisional ones
And after us there will come: nothing worth talking about.
In the earthquakes to come, I very much hope
I shall keep my cigar alight, embittered or no
I, Bertolt Brecht, carried off to the asphalt cities
From the black forests inside my mother long ago.
Walter Benjamin: “People for whom Communism appears to bear the stigma of onesidedness may have a surprise in store for them if they study closely a collection of verse such as Brecht’s…”
By 1930, and just as Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party was coming to power, Brecht was in Berlin putting into practice his political education in the theatrical work that would make him both a celebrity (the success of The Threepenny Opera [Die Dreigroschenoper] in Berlin being an example) and an enduring influence in the world of culture. At this time he worked closely with a number of artists, many of which would continue to support him up to his death: Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, Elisabeth Hauptmann, Margarete Steffin (who was to die in exile in Moscow in 1941 waiting on an American visa), Emil Burri, Ruth Berlau and others.
In line with his socialist and revolutionary commitment, it was now that he began to work on developing a new theatre, one that would provoke his audience into insight into the oppressive nature of the capitalist system rather than foster an attitude of passivity.
Douglas Kellner: “In his epic theater, Brecht sought to illuminate the historically specific features of an environment in order to show how that environment influenced, shaped, and often battered and destroyed the characters. Unlike dramatists who focused on the universal elements of the human situation and fate, Brecht was interested in the attitudes and behavior people adopted toward each other in specific historical situations.”
Brecht himself described his position, as well as the system he had committed to fight, more simply:
THEATRE OF EMOTIONS
Between ourselves, it seems to me a sorry trade
Putting on plays solely
To stir up inert feelings. You remind me of masseurs
Sinking their fingers in all too fatty
Flanks, as in dough, to knead away sluggards’
Bellies. Your situations are hastily assembled to
Excite the customers to rage
Or pain. The audience
Thus become voyeurs. The sated
Sit next the hungry.
The emotions you manufacture are turbid and impure
General and blurred, no less false
Than thoughts can be. Dull blows on the backbone
Cause the dregs of the soul to rise to the surface.
With glassy eyes
Sweaty brow and tightened calves
The poisoned audience follows
No wonder they buy their tickets
Two by two. And no wonder
They like to sit in the dark that hides them.
It was this Verfremdungseffekt (distancing or estrangement effect) that would come to define Brecht and his struggle to use culture as a tool with which to transform social reality:
Marc Silberman, Steve Giles and Tom Kuhn: “By the 1930s, Brecht was a committed Marxist, and Entfremdung is the term Marx uses for alienation. Before Brecht coined the term Verfremdung in the mid-1930s, however, he used Entfremdung. Marx’s term refers to the socio-economic position of the worker in the labour process under capitalism, but Brecht’s Entfremdung and Verfremdung both refer to an aesthetic process that renews our powers of cognition.”
Douglas Kellner: “As Walter Benjamin stressed, the response to epic theater should be: ‘Things can happen this way, but they can also happen a quite different way’. The strategy was to produce an experience of curiosity, astonishment, and shock, raising such questions as: “Is that the way things are? What produced this? It’s terrible! How can we change things?”
The Epilogue to the ‘Good Person of Szechuan’, written between 1938 and 1941, concludes:
You’re thinking, aren’t you, that this is no right
Conclusion to the play you’ve seen tonight?
After a tale, exotic, fabulous,
A nasty ending was slipped up on us.
We feel deflated too. We too are nettled
To see the curtain down and nothing settled.
How could a better ending be arranged?
Could one change people? Can the world be changed?
Would new gods do the trick? Will atheism?
Moral rearmament? Materialism?
It is for you to find a way, my friends,
To help good men arrive at happy ends.
You write the happy ending to the play!
There must, there must, there’s got to be a way.
Wikipedia (on Brecht’s theatre): “Epic Theatre proposed that a play should not cause the spectator to identify emotionally with the characters or action before him or her, but should instead provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the action on the stage. Brecht thought that the experience of a climactic catharsis of emotion left an audience complacent. Instead, he wanted his audiences to adopt a critical perspective in order to recognise social injustice and exploitation and to be moved to go forth from the theatre and effect change in the world outside. For this purpose, Brecht employed the use of techniques that remind the spectator that the play is a representation of reality and not reality itself. By highlighting the constructed nature of the theatrical event, Brecht hoped to communicate that the audience’s reality was equally constructed and, as such, was changeable.”
SHOWING HAS TO BE SHOWN
Show that you are showing! Among all the varied attitudes
Which you show when showing how men play their parts
The attitude of showing must never be forgotten.
All attitudes must be based on the attitude of showing
This is how to practice: before you show the way
A man betrays someone, or is seized by jealousy
Or concludes a deal, first look
At the audience, as if you wished to say:
‘Now take note, this man is now betraying someone and this
is how he does it.
This is what he is like when jealousy seizes him, and this
Is how he deals when dealing.’ In this way
Your showing will keep the attitude of showing
Of putting forward what has been made ready, of finishing off
Of continually going further. So show
That what you show is something you show every night,
have often shown before
And your playing will resemble a weaver’s weaving, the
work of a
Craftsman. And all that goes with showing
Like your continual concern to
Make watching simpler, always to ensure the best
View of every episode – that too you should make visible.
All this betraying and dealing and
Being seized by jealousy will be as it were
Imbued with something of the quality of a
Daily operation, for instance of eating, saying Good Morning
Doing one’s work. (For you are working, aren’t you?) And
Stage parts you yourselves must still be visible, as those who
Are playing them.
John Simkin (in Spartacus): “Brecht required detachment, not passion, from the observing audience.”
In August 1934, the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers put forward the policy of Socialist Realism (“writers were wise not to use fancy language, artists and composers not to be too refined in their techniques”), which was to determine the fate of much communist art in the years following as well as the fate of many left-wing artists accused and often executed for the crime of “formalism”. The policy, largely determined by Gorki, Stalin and Andrei Alexandrovich Zhdanov, dominated cultural policy from 1934 to 1956 and particularly the years between 1946 and the late 50’s, the period of the ‘Zhdanov Doctrine’. Analysing these years in detail, you would have to conclude that Brecht was one of the great survivors of this dark post-revolutionary period. Not alone did he survive but he continued to explore and implement his own theories and practice of cultural production as a tool with which to transform social reality.
Benjamin: “He said in 1938 (29 July), ‘Actually I have no friends there [in Moscow]; and the people in Moscow have no friends either—like the dead.'”
Wikipedia: “In contrast to many other avant-garde approaches, however, Brecht had no desire to destroy art as an institution; rather, he hoped to “re-function” the theatre to a new social use. In this regard he was a vital participant in the aesthetic debates of his era—particularly over the “high art/popular culture” dichotomy—vying with the likes of Adorno, Lukács, Ernst Bloch, and developing a close friendship with Benjamin. Brechtian theatre articulated popular themes and forms with avant-garde formal experimentation to create a modernist realism that stood in sharp contrast both to its psychological and socialist varieties.”
In this regard the Brecht-Lukács ‘debate’ (centred around the émigré journal Das Wort, though, strategically, Brecht never published his essays there) is worthy of serious study for those still committed to a theory and practice of ‘revolutionary art’. The theory, in this regard, being safer than the practice, as the number poets and artists condemned in Stalin’s Purges was to prove…
Bertolt Brecht (on Lukács): “That his proposals are impractical is obvious. No one who believes Lukács’s basic principle to be correct, can be surprised at this. Is there no solution then? There is. The new ascendant class shows it. It is not a way back. It is not linked to the good old days but to the bad new ones. It does not involve undoing techniques but developing them. Man does not become man again by stepping forth from the masses but by sinking deeper into them. The masses cast off their loss of humanity and thereby men become men again—but not the same men as before. This is the path that literature must take in our time when the masses are beginning to attract to themselves everything valuable and human, when they are mobilizing people against the dehumanization produced by capitalism in its fascist phase. It is the element of capitulation, of withdrawal, of utopian idealism which still lurks in Lukács’s essays and which he will undoubtedly overcome, that makes his work, which otherwise contains so much of value, unsatisfactory; for it gives the impression that what concerns him is enjoyment alone, not struggle, a way of escape, rather than a march forward.“
Fredric Jameson: “The Brecht Lukács debate alone is one of those rare confrontations in which both adversaries are of equal stature, both of incomparable significance for the development of contemporary Marxism, the one a major artist and probably the greatest literary figure to have been produced by the Communist movement, the other a central philosopher of the age and heir to the whole German philosophical tradition, with its unique emphasis on aesthetics as a discipline.”
On 27 February 1933, following an arson attack, the Reichstag building in Berlin went on fire. The following day Hitler’s Reichstag Fire Decree suspended most civil liberties in Germany, including habeas corpus, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, the right of free association and public assembly, the secrecy of the post and telephone. Brecht, though, had seen the writing on the wall and had prepared his exit. He left Nazi Germany the next day.
After brief spells in Prague, Zurich and Paris he and Weigel moved to Denmark. “His house in Svendborg became the residence of the Brecht family for the next six years, where they often received guests including Walter Benjamin, Hanns Eisler and Ruth Berlau. During this period Brecht also travelled frequently to Copenhagen, Paris, Moscow, New York and London for various projects and collaborations.” In April 1939, he moved to Stockholm, Sweden, where he remained for a year. After Hitler invaded Norway and Denmark, Brecht left Sweden for Helsinki, Finland, where he lived and waited for his visa for the United States until 3 May 1941:
His document to the HUAC outlines this period of exile:
“We continued our flight northward, to Finland, there to wait for immigration visas to the U.S.A. Hitler’s troops followed. Finland was full of Nazi divisions when we left for the United States in 1941. We crossed the U.S.S.R. by the Siberian Express which carried German, Austrian, Czechoslovakian refugees. Ten days after our leaving Vladivostok aboard a Swedish ship, Hitler invaded the U.S.S.R. During the voyage, the ship loaded copra in Manila. Some months later, Hitler’s allies invaded that island. We applied for American citizenship (first papers) on the day after Pearl Harbor.”
SOLELY BECAUSE OF THE INCREASING DISORDER
Solely because of the increasing disorder
In our cities of class struggle
Some of us have now decided
To speak no more of cities by the sea, snow on roofs, women
The smell of ripe apples in cellars, the senses of the flesh, all
That makes a man round and human
But to speak in future only about the disorder
And so become one-sided, reduced, enmeshed in the business
Of politics and the dry, indecorous vocabulary
Of dialectical economics
So that this awful cramped coexistence
Of snowfalls (they’re not merely cold, we know)
Exploitation, the lured flesh, class justice, should not engender
Approval of a world so many-sided; delight in
The contradictions of so bloodstained a life
Despite spending the rest of his life in one form of exile or another, Brecht’s capacity for work remained undiminished, arguably, until his setting up ‘home’ in East Berlin. His four great plays were written between 1938 and 1945. These included, The Life of Galileo, dealing with the protagonist’s self-hatred for giving up his convictions in the face of the Inquisition. The others were Mother Courage and Her Children; The Good Woman of Setzuan, “which in some ways follows from Mother Courage in examining the compatibility of virtue and a capitalist world”; and The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which introduces questions about power and who is entitled to own things. Brecht’s period in the USA lasted from 1941 to 1947. ‘Hangmen Also Die!’ is Brecht’s only known script from his time in Hollywood. The money from which proving very useful.
A BED FOR THE NIGHT
I hear that in New York
At the corner of 26th Street and Broadway
A man stands every evening during the winter months
And gets beds for the homeless there
By appealing to passers-by
It won’t change the world
It won’t improve relations among men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation
But a few men have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway.
Don’t put down the book on reading this, man.
A few people have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway
But it won’t change the world
It won’t improve relations among men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation.
Having fled from the Nazis and before he would settle at the end of his life in communist East Germany, Brecht ended his time in the States by being called before the House on Un-American Activities Committee (“the committee focused its investigations on real and suspected communists in positions of actual or supposed influence in the United States society”) charged with being a communist. Along with about 41 other Hollywood writers, directors, actors and producers, he was subpoenaed to appear before the Committee in September 1947.
Wikipedia: “Although he was one of 19 witnesses who declared that they would refuse to appear, Brecht eventually decided to testify. He later explained that he had followed the advice of attorneys and had not wanted to delay a planned trip to Europe. On the 30th of October 1947 Brecht testified that he had never been a member of the Communist Party. He made wry jokes throughout the proceedings, punctuating his inability to speak English well with continuous references to the translators present, who transformed his German statements into English ones unintelligible to himself. HUAC Vice Chairman Karl Mundt thanked Brecht for his co-operation. The remaining witnesses, the so-called Hollywood Ten, refused to testify and were cited for contempt. Brecht’s decision to appear before the committee led to criticism, including accusations of betrayal.”
In his undelivered statement to the Committee, Brecht stated:
“As a guest of the United States, I refrained from political activities concerning this country even in a literary form. By the way, I am not a screen writer, Hollywood used only one story of mine for a picture showing the Nazi savageries in Prague. I am not aware of any influence which I could have exercised in the movie industry whether political or artistic. Being called before the Un-American Activities Committee, however, I feel free for the first time to say a few words about American matters: looking back at my experiences as a playwright and a poet in the Europe of the last two decades, I wish to say that the great American people would lose much and risk much if they allowed anybody to restrict free competition of ideas in cultural fields, or to interfere with art which must be free in order to be art. We are living in a dangerous world. Our state of civilization is such that mankind already is capable of becoming enormously wealthy but, as a whole, is still poverty-ridden. Great wars have been suffered, greater ones are imminent, we are told. One of them might well wipe out mankind, as a whole. We might be the last generation of the specimen man on this earth. The ideas about how to make use of the new capabilities of production have not been developed much since the days when the horse had to do what man could not do. Do you not think that, in such a predicament, every new idea should be examined carefully and freely? Art can present clear and even make nobler such ideas.”
Later he would write more critically of the Hearings and the price this period of American democracy cost to those who became its victims:
“For such membership (Communist Party) no prison term or fine had been fixed; the Party was not illegal at the time. However, there were punishments in that country which appear much more harmless but aren’t. The State does not put in an appearance but the execution does take place. One could call it Cold Execution – a certain form of peace is called Cold War there. This Cold Execution is carried out by the industry: the delinquent is not deprived of his life, only of the means of life. He does not appear in the obituary column, only on the blacklists. Whoever has witnessed the horrors of poverty and humiliation which, in the land of the dollar, fall upon the man without a dollar, will not prefer the punishment of unemployment to any punishment that the State could inflict.”
The day after his testimony, on 31 October, Brecht, taking a flight to Paris, returned to Europe. His wife and daughter followed by boat.
ON T H I N K I N G A B O U T HELL
On thinking about Hell, I gather
My brother Shelley found it was a place
Much like the city of London. I
Who live in Los Angeles and not in London
Find, on thinking about Hell, that it must be
Still more like Los Angeles.
In Hell too
There are, I’ve no doubt, these luxuriant gardens
With flowers as big as trees, which of course wither
Unhesitantly if not nourished with very expensive water. And
With great heaps of fruit, albeit having
Neither smell nor taste. And endless processions of cars
Lighter than their own shadows, faster than
Mad thoughts, gleaming vehicles in which
Jolly-looking people come from nowhere and are nowhere
And houses, built for happy people, therefore standing empty
Even when lived in.
The houses in Hell, too, are not all ugly.
But the fear of being thrown on the street
Wears down the inhabitants of the villas no less than
The inhabitants of the shanty towns.
Brecht now returned to a continent in the process of being carved up between ‘East’ and ‘West’, one where it would appear there existed no space in the middle but where, despite eventually settling in soviet-controlled East Berlin to the end of his days, and as a testament to his capacity for survival, he managed to keep one foot in both, though at a price:
I, THE SURVIVOR
I know of course : it’s simply luck
That I’ve survived so many friends. But last night in a dream
I heard those friends say of me : ‘Survival of the fittest’
And I hated myself.
After an initial period in Switzerland where Brecht produced his theoretical work: “A Little Organum for the Theatre“…:
“The essence of his theory of drama, as revealed in this work, is the idea that a truly Marxist drama must avoid the Aristotelian premise that the audience should be made to believe that what they are witnessing is happening here and now. For he saw that if the audience really felt that the emotions of heroes of the past–Oedipus, or Lear, or Hamlet–could equally have been their own reactions, then the Marxist idea that human nature is not constant but a result of changing historical conditions would automatically be invalidated. Brecht therefore argued that the theatre should not seek to make its audience believe in the presence of the characters on the stage–should not make it identify with them, but should rather follow the method of the epic poet’s art, which is to make the audience realize that what it sees on the stage is merely an account of past events that it should watch with critical detachment.“
…Brecht and Weigel moved to Berlin in 1949. Refused permission by the American authorities to remain in West Berlin and after the staging of Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (with Helene Weigel once again, in the title role) at Reinhardt’s old Deutsches Theater in the Soviet sector, Brecht and Weigel set up the Berliner Ensemble, making the decision to remain permanently in Eastern Berlin.
Arendt: “Not that he had wanted to settle down there; from December, 1947, until Fall, 1949, he had waited in Zürich for permission to settle in Munich, and only when he had to give up all hope of getting it did he decide to go home as best he could—well provided against all hazards with a Czech passport soon to be exchanged for an Austrian one, a Swiss bank account, and a West German publisher. Up to that unfortunate moment, he had been quite careful not to come into close contact with his friends in the East. In 1933, when many of his friends foolishly believed they could find asylum in Soviet Russia, he went to Denmark, and when he fled Europe at the beginning of the war, though he came to America via Vladivostok, he hardly stopped in Moscow, never even considering Russia—this was the time of the Hitler-Stalin pact—as a possible place of refuge.”
Stephen Parker: “Brecht’s goal remained quite simply the realisation of his life’s work through the establishment of a new theatre for a new age of reason, with his own works at the core of a repertoire performed in a new style of Brechtian realism.”
Parker: “Henceforward the Ensemble and the staging of his own plays had first claim on Brecht’s time. Often suspect in eastern Europe because of his unorthodox aesthetic theories and denigrated or boycotted in the West for his Communist opinions, he yet had a great triumph at the Paris Théâtre des Nations in 1955, and in the same year in Moscow he received a Stalin Peace Prize.”
In the years remaining him – from about 1948 – 1956, Brecht would be immersed in the work and the politics of The Berliner Ensemble, despite opposition from many within the East German administration, apparently including Ulbricht himself:
Stephen Parker (in interview): “I would maintain that the SED leadership in Moscow never wanted Brecht in East Berlin.”
This produced its own contradictions as Brecht had to come to an accommodation with the Stalinist regime of Walter Ulbricht and the soviet inspired bureaucracy of social democrats (SDP) and communists (KPD), a task he was apparently successful at, as the Ensemble has survived. He himself, as Hannah Arendt points out, retained both his Austrian citizenship, granted in 1950 and his Swiss bank accounts.
Much criticism has been thrown at Brecht for his support of the East German regime particularly in their use of Soviet tanks and military to suppress the Workers’ Upbringing in 1953:
Willet and Manheim: “The times had darkened for him, we now see, even where they had turned red; so why was he himself silent wherever the dark places of the USSR and the international Communist movement were concerned?”
Arendt: “The worst that can happen to a poet is that he should cease to be a poet, and that is what happened to Brecht in the last years of his life.”
While Brecht wrote to Ulbricht supporting him at the time of the June Uprising, he also wrote the poem, The Solution, published after his death:
After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
Still, Brecht’s support for the regime, based on his position that a flawed communist system was better than a functioning bourgeois one, generated a number of contradictions that we are left to grapple with.
Nick Cohen: “Nothing, not the mountains of corpses or the cults of the personality, could shake Brecht’s confidence. He preferred silence about the vast crimes of the Bolsheviks, including the murders of his friends and translators, to admitting that his god had failed.”
In 1942 Brecht’s reluctance to help Carola Neher, the actress who died in a gulag death camp in the USSR after being arrested during 1936 purges as a suspected Trotskyite, caused a lot of controversy among Russian emigrants in the West.
Wikipedia: “Her fate caused protests among other emigrants outside the Soviet Union, especially as Bertolt Brecht did not aid Neher.”
Sybille Fuchs: “The “Moscow people” accused Brecht sweepingly of “formalism and negativity.” Indeed, while they included him in the editorial collective of the exile literary journal The Word, they published hardly anything by him, nor did they accept his suggestions. In the circle of the Ulbricht Group, the suspicion was raised repeatedly that Brecht was a “Trotskyist” like his friend, the actress Carola Neher, and her husband, Anatol Bekker, who both fell victim to Stalin’s terror.”
Sybille Fuchs: “Literary questions were, as Parker correctly states, with regard to the purges, questions of life and death. To a certain degree, this explains why Brecht’s statements about the purges and the Moscow Trials came to a halt, although he composed a few texts and poems (not published in his lifetime) in which he expressed his doubts.
A number of Brecht’s close friends and collaborators fell victim to the Stalinist terror. Indeed, Brecht tried cautiously to look into their fates. In several unpublished texts, which Parker quotes, he vacillates between justifications for the purges and his own skepticism.”
Stefan Steinberg (in his 2000 article reviewing “Farewell, Brecht’s Last Summer’, in WSW):
“Brecht limited his opposition to private discussions, entries in his diaries which he never published or extremely cryptic formulations for public consumption…
…Brecht’s own criticisms of the party never went beyond proposals for a reform of the apparatus. Towards the end of his life he looked to the China as a possible alternative, declaring his enthusiasm for the Chinese revolution and even placing a picture of Chairman Mao above his desk.”
Michael Billington (in another 2000 Guardian review of the same film describes Brecht as): “…the Marxist magpie whose career was a testament to the art of survival.”
Douglas Kellner: “Although Brecht remained a somewhat orthodox communist he cannot really be considered an apologist of Stalinism for, as I have demonstrated, he was deeply influenced by the heretical Marxism of Karl Korsch and was sharply critical of Stalin in his unpublished writings. During the 1953 workers uprising in East Berlin against the Stalinist regime, Brecht made some cryptic comments that seemed to support the cause of the workers, but managed to keep his official position with the Berliner Ensemble.”
Brecht was a man of many contradictions, not least then, as he himself wrote, his survival in a time and place where many did not, and some of these contradictions raise important issues for those committed to facing the dilemmas of the revolutionary struggle today.
Douglas Kellner: “Brecht admired the left-communists Korsch and Rosa Luxemburg because of their activism and adherence to the concept of the workers’ councils which they believed contained the authentic institutions of socialist democracy. In Lenin, Brecht respected the ability to translate revolutionary theory into practice. Stalin — as Me-ti, the Arbeitsjournal, and unpublished manuscripts and clippings in the Brecht archives attest — elicited an ambivalence in Brecht that has prevented consensus among critics on the subject of Brecht and Stalin. Very little inquiry has been made into his attitude toward Trotsky because there is little evidence. In the Arbeitsjournal during the period when Trotsky was heatedly debated within the international communist movement, Brecht offered no substantive discussion of the “Trotsky question…”
Anthony Squiers: “Although a lot of the scholarship on Brecht has been restricted to the study of form, not all the literature on Brecht’s aesthetics has. Some have taken Brecht’s Marxism as a serious object of analysis. Adorno, for example, criticizes Brecht’s aesthetics for being committed to the Marxist worldview. According to Adorno, Brecht’s aesthetics, like all committed art, fail to be revolutionary because they are not designed to fully participate in a dialectical discourse. They are presented in such a way as to abstractly negate alternative views. In other words, Adorno accuses Brecht of being too sure that his worldview produced the Truth…However, Brecht denies that his work failed to fulfill a role in dialectical discourse or that Leftist committed art in general failed to do so. In fact, Brecht makes a contrary argument, arguing that his work and committed art in general (i.e., truth) formed a dialectical antagonism with ideology.”
Anthony Squiers: “Another important non-formalistic contribution can be found in the work of Arendt. In these writings, Arendt both praises Brecht for his skill, compassion and selfless commitment to change, while at the same time condemning him for what she sees in him as a totalitarian impulse. Specifically, she argues that Brecht was particularly dangerous because of his great artistic ability and support for Stalin, whom she attempts to reduce to totalitarian methods and rule.”
Walter Benjamin, (in his meetings with Brecht in exile writes, on 25 July 1938, of the discussion following Brecht’s reading of his “Stalin poem” – ‘The Peasant to His Ox’): “He is following the developments in Russia and also the writings of Trotsky. These prove that there exists a suspicion – a justifiable one – demanding a sceptical appraisal of Russian affairs. Such scepticism is in the spirit of the Marxist classics. Should the suspicion prove correct one day, then it will become necessary to fight the regime, and publicly. But, ‘unfortunately or God be praised, whichever you prefer’, the suspicion is at present not yet a certainty. There is no justification for constructing upon it a policy such as Trotsky’s.”
Brecht’s relationship with Wolfgang Harich – Harich was Ulbricht’s most prominent and public critic, has also been mentioned. “Harich called for a radical reform of the East German Stalinist party (SED.)”
Stefan Steinberg: “In real life it is true that Brecht was on familiar terms and conducted political discussions with Harich. It was no secret that Brecht was having an affair with his wife. In fact Harich was actually arrested in November 1956. At his trial and following interrogation he was accused of plotting against the GDR and together with Janka sentenced to 10 years in jail. In the course of his interrogation he declared that in private conversations with Brecht the latter agreed with his own desire for a change in the party regime.”
So how are those of us committed to a culture of liberation to understand these contradictions..?
…how do we respond to them..?
..and how can their resolution help us continue to develop the tools needed for humanity to free itself from the ‘slavery’ of modern ‘progress’..?
Sybille Fuchs: “Unprecedented social inequality, obscene wealth, bitter poverty, the lowering of the standard of living of broad masses, wars and the danger of war in all parts of the globe, which could lead to the end of humanity through weapons of mass destruction—all of this once again poses the task of revolutionising society, of the overthrow of the outmoded capitalist system. Brecht’s works remain relevant and instructive for a critical, historically conscious audience.”
Settled now in East Berlin, and alongside the challenges posed in this brave new post-Holocaust world and the dilemmas faced by Marxists and communists of a world polarised into two camps (both now with a significant record of serious contempt for the work of human liberation), Brecht’s time was short and his health deteriorating.
Having lived through the most difficult years of the century, Brecht was not to survive long past the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union held between 14-25 February, 1956 where Khrushchev would make his famous speech:
Nikita Khrushchev: “It is clear that…Stalin showed in a whole series of cases his intolerance, his brutality and his abuse of power. Instead of proving his political correctness and mobilizing the masses, he often chose the path of repression and physical annihilation, not only against actual enemies, but also against individuals who had not committed any crimes against the Party and the Soviet Government. Here we see no wisdom but only a demonstration of the brutal force which had once so alarmed V. I. Lenin.”
Stephen Parker: “In a closed session of the Soviet Communist Party, the leader Nikita Khrushchev had denounced his predecessor’s crimes. Rülicke secured a copy of the speech for Brecht who was ‘deeply affected’ when he read it. He discussed it with friends such as Strittmatter, Walcher and the Schwerin theologian Karl Kleinschmidt, as well as writing texts which endorse the criticism from a perspective nonetheless supportive of the Marxist project: ‘The escape from the barbarism of capitalism may itself still have barbaric features’.”
Bertolt Brecht: “Without knowledge of the dialectic, such transitions as that from Stalin as motor, to Stalin as brake are not comprehensible. Nor is the negation of the Party through the state apparatus.”
Stephen Parker: “However, Brecht continued to believe that Marxism-Leninism would not necessarily result in a bureaucratically controlled command economy of scarcity. Characteristically, he turned his text into a call for the achievement of true Communism:
Bertolt Brecht: “The liquidation of Stalinism can only succeed if the Party mobilises the wisdom of the masses on a gigantic scale.”
Brecht was hospitalised from 12 April to 12 May, 1956 “under medical supervision”.
“Brecht was a physical mess, whose chronic conditions would eventually kill him, yet he had an extraordinary poetic and theatrical talent, which enabled him to transform his wretched physical weakness into a peerless strength.”
Later in May he was hospitalised again for complications of influenza at the Charité (the main hospital of East Berlin, just a block away from his theatre). He remained unwell through the summer and, on the morning of 14 August, knowing for days he was dying, he said to Elisabeth Hauptman “This is a joke – or am I seriously ill?”
During the day he issued a number of wishes, mostly involving bequests of property to his wife, mistresses and children. Later that day and with his health deteriorating he fell in and out of consciousness. Attempts to resuscitate his heart by the doctor called were given up at 11.30 pm that evening… “when Brecht was declared dead. His last words were: ‘Leave me in peace’.”
Exactly 60 years ago, on this day, August 14, 1956, in his apartment at Chausseestraße 125, Bertolt Brecht died. He was 58 years old.
In one of the poems written near the end of his life he says:
AND I ALWAYS THOUGHT
And I always thought : the very simplest words
Must be enough. When I say what things are like
Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds.
That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself
Surely you see that.
He is buried in the Dorotheenstadt cemetery, officially the “Cemetery of the Dorotheenstadt and Friedrichswerder Parishes, a landmarked Protestant burial ground located in the Berlin district of Mitte which dates to the late 18th century. The entrance to the 17,000m2 plot is at 126 Chaussee Straße, next door to the Brecht House, where Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel had spent their last years.”
Stephen Parker (re-formatted):
“On 17 August at 8.45 a.m.
Brecht was buried at the Dorotheenstadt Cemetery
in a steel coffin
with a headstone bearing just one word,
Only family and close friends attended,
no music was played
and not a word was spoken.”
Nearby lies the remains of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel “in a nearby grave”.
John Willett and Ralph Manheim (in their introduction to ‘Bertolt Brecht Poems’ describe his life and poetry as coinciding in a distinct timeframe):
“Thus one sees first how his early sense of sympathy for society’s victims and rejects, interlocked with his feeling for the warm south German landscape, is succeeded by the shock of contact with the big city and its granite indifference. Then follows the satirical, more and more political attack on that society and on the Nazis who arrive to take it over, leading after 1933 to an exile which many Germans shared but few could express so tellingly. The screw tightens still further as the Soviet purges of the later 1930s are followed by the Second World War (nowhere more desperately than in ‘In times of extreme persecution’), after which come the American experience with its many frustrations, and then the return to a battered, divided Germany misunderstood by its occupiers and still haunted by Nazi and Stalinist ghosts. It all moves past with a terrible clarity, particularly when the poet is not bothering to make the moral explicit or to suppress his own personal concerns.”
In Times of Extreme Persecution
Once you’ve been beaten
What will remain?
Hunger and sleet and
Who’ll point the lesson?
Just as of old
Hunger and cold
Will point the lesson.
Won’t people say then
It could never have worked?
The heaviest laden
Will wish they had shirked.
What will remind them
Of all the killed?
Wounds still unhealed
Those will remind them.
In the midst of all the contradictions and dilemmas of that murderous century just passed, there is much to be learnt from the life and work of this Marxist and communist poet and writer – if only, perhaps, the important lesson of being forced to confront the contradictions of an un-perfect world with a commitment to one’s own integrity and a learned capacity to make sense of it, alongside a commitment to work for the profound transformation of reality guided by ‘good sense’ and a theory that can be tested in practice..?
Brecht’s poetry, of all his production (most of it uncollected and unpublished during his lifetime) marks the convergence of the individual life, the work and the social struggle for revolutionary change. For Brecht the poet it would appear that both communism and the revolution are to be found in the commonplace, not as an addition or an appendix to ‘reality’ and it is in the daily struggle that the Revolution raises its head as an always already present possibility.
And it is the question of our contradictions (“…Of snowfalls (they’re not merely cold, we know) / Exploitation, the lured flesh, class justice…) that we need to ask, if we are to face into this century with all its crisis and its potential for both catastrophe…and transformation…
Jan Schütte (director of ‘The Farewell: Brecht’s Last Summer’): “There’s a moment in the film when a small boy, actually played by my son, recites a Brecht poem about a small cloud dying and the transience of all earthly things. Brecht himself is moved by the experience. It reminds me that Brecht, the great architect of alienation, said at the end of his life to the director, Peter Palitzsch, ‘Maybe we should have had more emotion.’ In a sense, it is the final Brechtian irony: that ultimately he questioned just about everything he had created.”
Sergio Segio (writes, in a recent ‘Introduction’ to Global Rights, Issue 2):
“But always from the word we must start, or re-start. And today, as always, the one that has greater inherent strength is the poetic word. It’s the artistic expression, in its multifaceted and endless forms, which owns the code, the code able to combine the old and the new, reason and feelings, awareness and perspective.”
Our task, we who have survived, as we move forward…beyond each contradiction…through a culture committed to human liberation…towards one possible realm…of freedom…
TO THOSE BORN LATER
Truly, I live in dark times.
The guileless word is folly. A smooth forehead
Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet had
The terrible news.
What kind of times are they, when
A talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors ?
That man there calmly crossing the street
Is already perhaps beyond the reach of his friends
Who are in need ?
It is true I still earn my keep
But, believe me, that is only an accident. Nothing
I do gives me the right to eat my fill.
By chance I’ve been spared. (If my luck breaks, I am lost.)
They say to me: Eat and drink! Be glad you have it.
But how can I eat and drink if I snatch what I eat
From the starving, and
My glass of water belongs to one dying of thirst?
And yet I eat and drink.
I would also like to be wise.
In the old books it says what wisdom is:
To shun the strife of the world and to live out
Your brief time without fear
Also to get along without violence
To return good for evil
Not to fulfil your desires but to forget them
Is accounted wise.
All this I cannot do :
Truly, I live in dark times.
I came to the cities in a time of disorder
When hunger reigned there.
I came among men in a time of revolt
And I rebelled with them.
So passed my time
Which had been given to me on earth.
My food I ate between battles
To sleep I lay down among murderers
Love I practised carelessly
And nature I looked at without patience.
So passed my time
Which had been given to me on earth.
All roads led into the mire in my time.
My tongue betrayed me to the butchers.
There was little I could do. But those in power
Sat safer without me: that was my hope.
So passed my time
Which had been given to me on earth.
Our forces were slight. Our goal
Lay far in the distance
It was clearly visible, though I myself
Was unlikely to reach it.
So passed my time
Which had been given to me on earth.
You who will emerge from the flood
In which we have gone under
When you speak of our failings
The dark time too
Which you have escaped.
For we went, changing countries oftener than our shoes
Through the wars of the classes, despairing
When there was injustice only, and no rebellion.
And yet we know:
Hatred, even of meanness
Contorts the features.
Anger, even against injustice
Makes the voice hoarse. Oh, we
Who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness
Could not ourselves be friendly.
But you, when the time comes at last
And man is a helper to man
Think of us
All poems, gratefully quoted, are from:
‘Bertolt Brecht Poems’, Edited by John Willett and Ralph Manheim, Eyre Methuen Ltd, 1976.
Read Brecht’s Statement and Replies to HUAC:
Read: Stephen Parker, Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life, Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2014. http://bloomsbury.com/uk/bertolt-brecht-a-literary-life-9781408155622/
Read: Aesthetics and Politics, by Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Bertolt Brecht, and Georg Lukács Afterword by Fredric Jameson: (“In Aesthetics and Politics the key texts of the great Marxist controversies over literature and art during these years are assembled in a single volume.”
See film of his Testimony to the House (of) Un-American Activities Committee
Watch Roy Starr’s Performance of ‘Of Poor B.B.’
John Simpkin’s Page: http://spartacus-educational.com/USAbrecht.htm
Read Anthony Squiers Dissertation online (now published)
‘The Social and Political Philosophy of Bertolt Brecht’ at http://scholarworks.wmich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1126&context=dissertations
 Bertolt Brecht: ‘Als ich in weissem Krankenzimmer der Charité’ / ‘When in my white room at the Charité’, (May 1956), translated by John Willett and Ralph Manheim, from Bertolt Brecht: Poems 1913-1956 (Eyre Methuen Ltd, 1976)
 Anthony Squiers, ‘ The Social and Political Philosophy of Bertolt Brecht’, Page 15
 Rosa Luxemburg, The Beginning, First Published: Die Rote Fahne, November 18th, 1918. https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/11/18b.htm
 See Parker’s essay: The Medical Orderly & The Revolution, in his 2014 biography.
 Like Brecht, Weigel was a committed Communist who joined the Communist Party in Berlin in 1930. Though she had reservations about the East German totalitarian system, she did nothing that might jeopardize her work as director of the Berliner Ensemble and her challenging mission of publishing Brecht’s complete works and setting up his archives after his death in 1956. http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/weigel-helene
 Parker, Stephen, “Bertolt Brecht, A Literary Life”, Bloomsbury, 2014.
 Understanding Brecht, Walter Benjamin, ©Verso 1998, First published as Versuche fiber Brecht 1966, © Suhrkamp Verlag 1966
 “Verfremdung is probably the most notorious of Brecht’s theoretical notions”, See discussion in: Brecht on Theatre, Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2015.
 Brecht on Theatre, Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2015.
 ‘The Good Woman Of Setzuan’, Grove Press, 1966
 Understanding Brecht, Walter Benjamin, ©Verso 1998, First published as Versuche fiber Brecht 1966, © Suhrkamp Verlag 1966
 New Left Review I/84, March-April 1974, https://newleftreview.org/I/84/bertolt-brecht-against-georg-lukacs
 Aesthetics and Politics, by Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Bertolt Brecht, and Georg Lukács Afterword by Fredric Jameson
 The Social and Political Philosophy of Bertolt Brecht, Anthony Squiers,
 25 July 1938, Walter Benjamin, in ‘Understanding Brecht’, Verso, 1998
 Parker, Stephen, ‘Bertolt Brecht, A Literary Life’, Bloomsbury
 Parker, Stephen, ‘Bertolt Brecht, A Literary Life’, Bloomsbury
 John Willett and Ralph Manheim, in: Introduction to Bertolt Brecht: Poems 1913-1956 (1976)